The ink is hardly dry on the historic pension reform bill the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year but already powerful forces are out to eviscerate it. Assembly Bill 160 by Watsonville Democrat Luis Alejo represents the latest and most serious assault.
Sponsored by a trio of transit unions, the bill would exempt an estimated 20,000 transit workers from the Public Employee Pension Reform Act. The hard-fought measure approved with so much fanfare just four months ago reduces pension benefits for newly hired government workers, raises retirement ages and bars pension spiking, among other things.
But transit union lobbyists claim that the act also reduces their members' collective bargaining rights, in violation of an obscure provision in federal labor law that applies uniquely to transit workers. Under that law, they say, public employers who reduce or diminish collective bargaining rights can be denied federal transit grants.
Using that argument, the unions have already challenged federal funding for several state transit projects, including a $40 million grant that was in the pipeline to help finance Sacramento's light-rail extension to Elk Grove. Transit districts up and down the state are in turmoil. The U.S. Department of Labor has put several districts, including Sacramento Regional Transit, on notice that their federal grants are in jeopardy and instructed them to try to work it out with their unions. Regional Transit officials are meeting with union representatives this week. If they fail to reach an agreement, they expect to have to file further appeals with the federal government to try to get their funds released.
Transit districts should not have to fight this battle alone. Brown needs to step up and defend his reform. He needs to make it clear to federal authorities that pension reform is not an abridgement of collective bargaining rights. Under the law, unions retain ample authority to collectively bargain. The Legislature also needs to show it was serious about pension reform by rejecting AB 160.
The scope of the state pension reform act is limited as it is. Charter cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are not covered under the law. Several law enforcement workers have filed suit to bar the law's application to them. Now transit workers want an exemption, too. If AB 160 passes, other powerful unions will demand to be let out of the law.
If the governor fails to vigorously defend pension reform, and if the Legislature is bullied into passing AB 160, the entire pension reform effort begins to look like a fraud. Voters will be watching. Were state leaders really serious about pension reform or was it all just a ploy to get the electorate to approve tax increases?